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Made in America: How U.S. Military Funding to Egypt Undermines Human Rights

By Joscelyn Jurich

CAIRO—In June 2010, about 25 people had gathered near Talaat Harb Square, a central point in downtown Cairo. I had arrived in Cairo less than two weeks before to work as a New Media Specialist for Freedom House.

It was a small—but significant protest—and they were chanting something I couldn’t understand. Some of them held their arms high, crisscrossing their wrists as if they had already been arrested or were prepared to be. Approximately 70 riot police in black storm trooper gear surrounded the small group. Three large green army trucks were parked a few feet from the protesters. After a few minutes of observation, a policeman dressed in the customary all-white uniform gently motioned me away from the scene.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was witnessing one of the first demonstrations against the brutal June 6, 2010 murder of Alexandrian Khaled Said, whose death became seminal in fueling the Egyptian revolution.

Said was dragged from an Internet café by two Egyptian policemen, Mahmud Salah Amin and Awad Ismail Suleiman, and killed for alleged drug possession. Shortly thereafter, a post-mortem photograph of Said’s bloodied, battered face and smashed-in skull was widely circulated. The brutality of the event and its horrifying visual evidence sparked mass protests as well as “silent stands,” where individuals coordinated via social media, dressing in black and standing quietly to commemorate Said’s death. The incident also had special resonance for young Egyptians like the ones I worked with at a local human rights and development NGO. Many of them felt they could have easily been in Said’s place.

They and others I met in Cairo told me about friends and family members who were targeted by the police, arrested, and then never heard from again. Female colleagues described being routinely sexually harassed by the young soldiers whose trucks often lined the streets of downtown Cairo. Male activist friends had scores of stories about being arrested and abused by the police and showed the physical scars as proof. Being beaten to death by the police was not unimaginable for many of the people I knew.

I only heard their harrowing stories and saw the physical evidence of abuse. Aside from feeling a little uneasy as I walked to work each morning down a dirt road surrounded by two sniper-manned watchtowers, I felt safe that summer in Cairo. What made me uncomfortable was the U.S. financing the military while publicly advocating human rights advancement in Egypt and funding “democracy building” initiatives like the one I was working with. Almost two years and two revolutions later, the world has been saturated with images of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, many violent and all uplifting. Two of these images are not globally iconic but are significant starting points for analyzing the role of U.S. military funding, its impact on political and civil rights in Egypt, and America’s consistent de-prioritization of a human rights framework in shaping foreign policy toward Egypt.

One is an image widely circulated on Twitter during the revolution showing tear gas canisters with “Made in America” stamps. The other is a photograph of Egyptian non-profit workers standing in a cage in an Egyptian courtroom awaiting trial that appeared in the March 2, 2012 edition of the New York Times. The male in the background is one of my former Freedom House colleagues, Mohammed; the female in the foreground, his assistant, is reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Both of these images heightened the specter of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, the majority of which is Foreign Military Financing. Despite its consistently deplorable human rights record, Egypt has been receiving the same amount annually since 1979, making Egypt the second largest recipient of American military funding after Israel. The ammunition used by the Egyptian military for “crowd control” links U.S. funding to the deaths of Egyptian citizens, who were exercising their political and civil rights to peacefully assemble and speak freely.

Addressing the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight in 2007, then-Chairman of the Subcommittee, Massachusetts Senator Bill Delahunt reiterated Egypt’s wide-ranging importance to the United States: “Promoting the peace between themselves and Israel, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to supporting the war against al-Qaida” and stipulated that though “principles and respect for human rights cannot be the sole foreign policy principle for the U.S. in bilateral relations with any given countries, they can and should be a key element in US relations with all countries.”

The Subcommittee speakers detail what Katheryn Cameron Porter, Director of the Leadership Council for Human Rights terms as a “two-faced foreign policy” concerning human rights, citing the U.S.’s and specifically the State Department’s criticism of Egypt and other countries for using secret detention and torture while employing no internal oversight for its own similar non-compliance with human rights treaties. Speculating what might happen if and when the “instability” that “appears to be festering” in Mubarak’s repressive autocracy erupts, Delahunt states, “we are going to be identified with the Mubarak government.”

Delahunt’s prediction was realized during the January 25 revolution. The U.S. was associated with Mubarak materially as well as ideologically. Photographs of Egyptian protesters holding “Made in the USA” tear gas canisters began to circulate widely on social media during the January 25 revolution. According to the U.S. State Department, two export licenses for "teargas and other non-lethal riot control agents" from U.S. companies were approved in July 2010 and arrived in Egypt in November. The Guardian and then other news outlets went on to report that the tear gas used during protests in Egypt was manufactured by Combined Systems Inc (CSI), a company based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. CSI specializes in supplying "crowd control devices" to armies and "homeland security agencies" around the world and also manufactures “lethal equipment.”

According to Human Rights Watch’s 2012 country report on Egypt, “the military used excessive force and carried out arbitrary mass arrests in various cities to disperse demonstrations and sit-ins on numerous occasions, beating and tasering those arrested. On April 9, military officers used rubber bullets and live ammunition to break up a sit-in opposing SCAF’s rule, wounding at least 71 protesters, one fatally.”  This misuse of military equipment by the military and security forces persists in the context of an expanding internationally backed Egyptian military complex.

A recent article in AllAfrica.com states, “thanks to its continuing M1A1 co-production program with the U.S., Egypt is now home to more tanks than all of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America combined.”  The article also details the new "Mubarak Complex for the Defense Industry," a project costing 3 billion Egyptian pounds (approximately $500,000) which will relocate several of the Egyptian military’s largest factories—Shoubra Engineering Industries, Maasara Engineering Industries, Maadi Engineering Industries, Heliopolis Company for Chemical Industries, and Abu Zaabal Company for Specialty Chemicals—to a more remote location along Belbeis Desert Road, which runs from Cairo to the province of Sharkeya.

Though Egypt has ratified the core International Covenants on Human Rights, and last year announced its plan to amend the Rome Statute and join the International Criminal Court, its human rights record with respect to civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights, is consistently deplorable.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2010 report on Egypt details violations of almost every statute of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its core covenants, including but not limited to: arbitrary and unlawful killings, disappearances, frequent torture, and abuse of prisoners and detainees; frequent torture to obtain information and confessions; employ of Emergency Law to try a wide range of cases in military courts; harassment, detention, arrest, and censorship of journalists; restricted freedom of assembly; religious discrimination and travel bans against Bahais and Coptic Christians; violence, abuse, and discrimination toward Eritrean, Sudanese and Darfurian refugees; widespread sexual harassment against Egyptian and immigrant women; abused, overworked, and endangered child workers; and abuse of Egyptian and undocumented foreign workers.

Unfortunately the U.S.’s funding to Egypt invites the question, “what role do human rights issues play in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy?’” According to Northeastern University Political Science professor Dennis Sullivan, in the case of Egypt, the answer to this question is:  “almost certainly none.” The Middle East peace process, trade, and “a strong and stable” Egypt are U.S. foreign policy priorities and Washington often ignored Egyptian human rights abuses. For the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the priorities have remained similar—oil, stability of the Gulf monarchies, the peace process, sanctions against rogue states, and debt rescheduling. Conditionality has predictably followed suit.

In February 2012, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton warned Egyptian officials that military aid was at risk not because of Egypt’s consistent violations of civil and social rights, but because of the prosecution of several American financed quasi-governmental organizations: Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the International Republican Institute (IRI).

The International Arms Sales Code of Conduct requires the State Department to include in its annual report on human rights the extent to which states meet the Code's criteria. Yet national security interests have consistently been cited to override these codes and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which bans the sale of arms to governments that “grossly and consistently” violate human rights, to allow Egypt to receive foreign military financing despite its human rights record. Only one bill has been introduced into Congress that would re-structure U.S. military funding to Egypt.

In 2007, former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner introduced the “Egyptian Counterterrorism and Political Reform Act,” prohibiting military funding to Egypt in 2008 unless national security reasons could be shown and aid re-arranged aid so that the military funding would solely support economic projects. The bill, which was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs but not enacted, focused on Egypt’s relationship with Israel and its potential threat as an arms smuggling site to Gaza—not on human rights violations.

Though clearly part of civil and political rights, democracy promotion as reflected in U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt has divorced the two. “The U.S. has embraced democracy promotion as a softer and fuzzier alternative to defending human rights,” according to Human Rights Watch’s 2008 World Report.

As recently reported by the Project on Middle East Democracy in their analysis of the 2011 Federal Budget and Appropriations for the Middle East, US assistance to the region “remains dominated by aid for regional militaries.”  Democracy and governance funding by program area has not increased from 2010, with $10.5 million for Rule of Law and Human Rights programming, $6 million for Good Governance and anticorruption programs, and $8.5 million to support Egyptian Civil Society.  This support continues to go to NGOs that are officially registered and approved by the Egyptian government, a stipulation requested by Mubarak and agreed to by President Obama in 2009.

On July 14, 2012 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with President Morsy in Cairo and stressed that the US supports universal human rights. On the second day of her July visit, Clinton went to the newly opened US Embassy in Alexandria, the same city in which Khaled Said was killed by the police. Her motorcade was pelted with tomatoes and shoes by protesters criticizing the US’ longtime backing of the Mubarak regime.

Carefully stenciled spray-painted images of Khaled Said are now ubiquitous on downtown Cairo walls and his story still embodies the gross human rights violations of the Mubarak regime.   In 2012, the U.S. has not only been overlooking Egypt’s human rights violations, but has developed a dependent relationship to them, just as it did during the Clinton and Bush administrations’ use of extraordinary rendition. Despite the vast differences of internal structure and governance between Egypt and the U.S., the Obama administration continues to use ‘national security’ to overstep international human rights laws, while Egypt similarly justified its repressive Emergency Law for reasons of state security.

As University of Buffalo Law School Dean Makau Mutua argues, human rights affect “earthly matters”  that “concern immediate and routine politics”  though they pretend to embody  “both impartiality and the quintessence of human goodness.” The U.S. military funding of Egypt is a clear case of foreign policy that does not even pretend to uphold such a lofty ideal but instead consistently undermines a human rights framework. 

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Joscelyn Jurich is a freelance journalist currently in Cairo

[Image courtesy of Jonahtan Rashad]

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Anonymous's picture
US support of foreign military


The best organized are the rich. Second best are religious zealots. Until the rest of us get organized, we will have to continue to support the corrupt, incompetent proxies for the rich in order to keep the zealots at bay.
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